Recently I wrote about why people stay with a group. We looked at relationships, trust and delivering value to people. Keeping people on your list, in your community and donating, buying and engaging isn’t just helpful. Retention is a must. Inactive subscribers are costing you money. And disengaged supporters are telling you something about the quality of your communications, fundraising and overall value.
Conversations and questions about retention and reactivation keep popping up in my feed and among friends. I think it’s sign of economic and political uncertainty.
Folks are taking a hard look at how to optimize their email and other lists. Or they’re being told to by their bosses. It makes sense. Email lists aren’t free to build or maintain. A bigger list is not necessarily going to raise you more money, turn people out to events or develop activists, leaders and supporters. But a bigger list is going to cost more to host and send to. A bigger list may also increase inbox problems (aka more spam) and send the wrong signals about community power to your organizing and fundraising directors.
A barrel of monkeys approach
The world of powerful CRMs, big data and fast internet lets us find, label and reach people with amazing speed and volume. It also leads us to believe that we know people. We have email, name, location and their giving and engagement history. We may get the voter file, census data, buying history and all the sorts of things that come with consumer data files (income, home and car ownership, marital status…it goes on and on).
This isn’t much more than putting colors on monkeys in a barrel if you’re sending countless emails with countless asks for donations, actions, purchases.
The other day a colleague linked to an episode of a podcast for Republican politicos. The Business of Politics Show had a conversation with John Hall of Apex Strategies. Hall is credited with raising over $1.5 billion from 48 million individual donors. There’s perhaps nobody who knows more about shady methods of buying/renting lists and pitching 76X match gifts (an actual pitch in political fundraising) or any number of other lies (that’s what they are) to “subscribers.”
Hall isn’t seeking absolution for past acts. But he made a clear case for the need to shift perspective. Build donor lists, he says, not just big lists. It’s better to have a million subscribers than one but most million subscriber lists are failing to raise money for Republican candidates. Democratic and nonprofit lists are similarly underperforming if they’re optimized for size not community and impact.
Community and Impact
You probably don’t have the time and money to drag around a list that’s 50%, 60% or 75% inactive.
Instead, what does optimizing for community and impact look like. A few ideas:
Be much clearer and more honest about what you expect from community members, subscribers and supporters.
If you need donations then hone in on who gives, why they give, when they give and how they’re being retained over time. Recruit from places where you’ll find donors and have clear budgets and strategies for turning new people into donors.
Likewise for activists, volunteers and other categories of engaged supporters. Bring your communications and content, organizing, education and training staff into the planning for supporter engagement and its metrics.
Be brutally honest about subscriber value. If a new subscriber doesn’t open, click on or donate in the first 4-6 weeks after coming on board perhaps they’re already targets for reactivation. And this is a signal that their origin (list, event, lead gen activity) isn’t working.
You may be able to carry inactive people for months. It’s possible some will re-engage. And a community-driven organization should show some compassion for its community. But understand the costs associated with holding onto them. And recognize the signals that their inaction sends. What can you offer that increases their responsiveness? What obstacles do they face when engaging with you? Are your emails even landing in the inbox (or just spam)?
AI and that barrel of monkeys
John Hall, in the conversation linked above, spoke about the potential for AI to revolutionize how we customize subscriber, donor and supporter engagement. When you carry around a lot of data about supporters it makes sense to give an AI app the responsibility for turning that data into personalized content to motivate donors.
We’ll see a lot of this in coming months. Especially with the 2024 campaign. You can expect nonprofits to use these tools (and consultants and vendors to talk a lot about them).
But the potential for AI to leverage more donations isn’t community. All the data in the world isn’t community. Be clear about what you want with community, what people need, where those people are and how they’re living. Know that and you’ll know how to engage, retain and perhaps use the tech that’s here (and coming).